US researchers said Monday they have discovered how to keep tumor cells alive in a lab, generating buzz in the scientific community about a potential breakthrough that could transform cancer treatment.
Until now, scientists have been unable to make cancer cells thrive for very long, or in a condition that resembles the way they act in the body. Doctors diagnose and recommend treatment largely based on biopsied tissue that is frozen or set in wax.
The advance has sparked new hope that someday doctors may be able to test a host of cancer-killing drugs on a person’s own tumor cells in the lab, before returning to the patient with a therapy that is a proven to be a good match.
“This would really be the ultimate in personalized medicine,” said lead author Richard Schlegel, chairman of the department of pathology at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“The therapies would be exactly from their tissues. We would get normal tissue and tumor tissue from a particular patient and specifically match up their therapies,” he told AFP.
“We are really excited about the possibilities of testing we can do with this.”
The method, described in the online edition of the American Journal of Pathology, borrows from a simple method used in stem cell research, experts said.
Lung, breast, prostate and colon cancers were kept alive for up to two years using the technique, which combines fibroblast feeder cells to keep cells alive and a Rho kinase (ROCK) inhibitor that allows them to reproduce.
When treated with the duo, both cancer and normal cells reverted to a “stem-like state,” Schlegel said, allowing researchers to compare the living cells directly for the first time.
If other scientists can replicate the technique — and three labs in the United States are already working on it — the advance could herald a long-awaited transformation in the way cancer cells are studied.
“A tumor from one patient is different from a cancer from another patient, and really that is one important reason why so many clinical trials fail,” said Marc Symons, investigator at the Center for Oncology and Cell Biology at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York.
“I think it is fair to say this revolutionizes the way we think of cancer treatment,” added Symons, who was not involved in the study.
Cancer is the leading cause of death in the world, killing 7.6 million people in 2008, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization.